I like books, and therefore tend to like books about books and the bookly experience. Enter Anne Fadiman‘s Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. An excerpt from the first chapter from the book, “Marrying Libraries,” is available online.
Fadiman has a somewhat unique experience, growing up in a family that is pretty much insane when it comes to the written word (as evidenced by proofreading restaurant menus together, weekly quiz shows, keeping logs of book & newspaper errors, and so on), and marrying another booknut husband. All of the essays are couched in this experience. Despite her… interesting family, the undeniable pleasure of books like this is the experience of seeing myself. It’s like when you identify with a character in a movie, or when you read those silly descriptions about personality traits of your Zodiac symbol but you find yourself nodding your head, or just the simple joy of having a friend describe you accurately.
The essay that really got me was about compulsive proofreading. One of her editor’s daughters “manifested the gene at an early age by stopping at dammed-up streams during family hikes and removing all the dead leaves.” Oh, yes, that’s definitely me when I was a toddler. And I was still doing it when I went hiking on the Appalachian Trail this summer. Fadiman goes on, still talking about me in a roundabout way:
The proofreading temperament is part of a larger syndrome with several interrelated symptoms, one of which is the spotting mania. When my friend Brian Miller, also a copy editor, was a boy, he used to sit in the woods for long stretches, watching for subtle animal movements in the distance… Proofreaders tend to be good at distinguishing the anomalous figure—the rare butterfly, the precious seashell—from the ordinary ground, but unlike collectors, we wish to discard rather than hoard. Although not all of us are tidy, we savor certain cleaning tasks: removing the lint from the clothes dryer, skimming the drowned bee from the pool. My father’s most treasured possession is an enormous brass wastebasket. He is happiest when his desktop is empty and the basket is full. One of my brother’s first sentences, a psychologically brilliant piece of advice offered from his high chair one morning when my father came downstairs in a grouchy mood, was “Throw everything out, Daddy!”
Spotting, check. Dryer-lint cleaning, check. Throwing things away, check. Fadiman is singing my tune.
There’s another essay about sonnets and the struggle to write. In one passage, Fadiman looks over some of her sonnets and realizes that she “had mistaken for lyric genius what was in fact merely the genetic facility for verbal problem-solving that enabled everyone in my family to excel at crossword puzzles, anagrams, and Scrabble.” Been there!
The fifth chapter offers a disquisition on the care of books. Fadiman posits two schools of thought. There are the courtly lovers, who argue “a book’s physical self was sacrosanct, its form inseparable from its content; her duty as a lover was Platonic adoration, a noble but doomed attempt to conserve forever the state of perfect chastity in which it had left the bookseller.” And then there are carnal lovers: “a book’s words were holy, but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contained them were a mere vessel, and it was no sacrilege to treat them as wantonly as desire and pragmatism dictated. Hard use was a sign not of disrespect but of intimacy.” I used to be strictly courtly, but I’m loosening up a bit these days. Just a bit.
Some of my other favorites were a heavily-footnoted essay on plagiarism (quoting Robert Merton: “Anticipatory plagiarism occurs when someone steals your original idea and publishes it a hundred years before you were born.”), and another one on the joys of reading aloud. So Fadiman is really brainy, but most of the book had me laughing, too. In an extended disquisition on reading catalogs, she mentions “although it is tempting to conclude that our mailbox hatches them by spontaneous generation, I know they are really the offspring of promiscuous mailing lists, which copulate in secret and for money.” I’m sure that imagery will stick with me for a long time. It’s one of those books that leaves you smiling at the end. When I put it on my shelf, there’s that little tingle of joy knowing it was mine to take back down again. Sometime soon.